Recounts close calls with death in war
Under the relentless fighting will of the Japanese in World War II, James Smith said there were certainly times he didn’t expect to come back home to Norco.
But Smith did.
Now, at 92 years old, he has a different perspective about surviving his many close calls with death.“I was a lucky guy close as I was to not being here,” he said. “Yes, you wondered if you were going to make it, but God was in the plan.”
It was 1943, at age 18, when Smith left New Orleans and went to New Guinea that he experienced war firsthand.Smith witnessed the Japanese run off the natives of New Guinea into the hills.
Fresh in the U.S. Army, he was one of the men rushing out of the boats on the beach in full attack. Smith rushed to the right and lived, but it wasn’t so for the men who went left and he never forgot it.
He said the war experience pretty much boiled down to “Fight, run, hide, sleep outside and a little food.” Smith knew the hard fight as a foot soldier on the front line, but he also knew the military’s arduous work such as unloading ships.
“We did everything,” he recalled. “When you come off the ship and go in your little tents, the Japanese were hiding out there. It was something.”
His duty also took him to the Philippines, where he also served on the front line.
The Japanese were relentless fighters, Smith said. They would crawl for days to move 10 yards closer to the line, were masters of camouflage and were meticulous in every move.
Smith recalled an experience unloading a ship when he witnessed a Japanese plane drop 155mm shells down the smoke stacks of that vessel. It became another experience he survived and would never forget.
On Oct. 20, 1944, Smith fought in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which is considered the largest naval battle of World War II and possibly the largest naval battle in history.
The battle took Smith to the Philippines, but the war took him to many places in the South Pacific and especially Japan.
“Those Japanese were all over,” he said. “You couldn’t avoid the Japanese on that front.”
When Smith left the Army on Jan. 12, 1946, he came back home to Norco and got a job at Good Hope Refinery. From there, he went on to Shell Oil Co., where he retired 30 years later.Smith’s nickname is “Shook,” although his wife doesn’t know why but it’s one of numerous names he’s gotten over the years, which included “Wild Bill.” All she really knows is this name stuck.
“He’s always running into his old podnas,” she mused of his many talks with friends, who include former military people. “He has friends everywhere.”
When the two sit on the front porch as they often do, Smith tells war stories and talks about all the places he went to in the war.
That’s the part of the war he appreciates.
He didn’t like traveling, but he did a lot of it the whole war.
“I’m going to tell the truth about it,” he said. “I caught the devil like everybody else, but I was glad I was sent for the experience cause I wouldn’t have ever seen those places. I’ve been halfway around the world. There’s been so many places, I can’t recall them all.”
It’s all emblazoned on Smith’s memory so much so that he readily recounted his Army serial number: 3849636374.